Rolex Explorer II: A Closer Look Into This Luxury Sports Watch

Stainless steel watches are so in demand and fashionable these days that it’s hard to imagine that until the 1960s, they were quite rare and expensive. However, that changed with the release of a stream of job-specific steel watches in the 1970s—anti-magnetic models, waterproof watches, chronographs, and GMTs.

Fast forward to the present, brawny steel watches remain a commodity in the market. But, what has been a weekend watch designed for recreational activities, is now a watch you can pair with a suit come Monday. While there are newcomers in the playing field, a handful of classic watches whose lineage can be traced back to the 70s continue to evolve and stay as relevant as ever.  

Rolex Explorer II: History & Overview of the Watches 

Rolex introduced the first Explorer II in 1971 as the larger version of its predecessor, the Explorer I. With the ref. 1655, it sported a 39mm stainless steel case and a matching steel bracelet. It was designed with spelunkers in mind, offering features that guarantee legibility even in complete darkness.

For example, there is the extra luminescent orange 24-hour hand that points to a fixed 24-hour bezel, allowing you to tell the difference between AM and PM. The color was later replaced with a red one which also fades to orange over time. Overall, it was heavy on luminescent details, owing to the luminous markers every five minutes, small luminous squares every 2.5 minutes, and the 24 glow-in-the-dark accents—one for each hour of the day. 

The watch had the “T SWISS T” marking at 6 o’clock, indicating the self-luminous tritium used to give the timepiece its glow. It was powered by the Calibre 1575, the same mechanical movement that beats inside the GMT-Master manufactured during the same period. Over the years, the vintage Rolex watch received a few dial updates within the same reference—at least five different designs, each with slight differences in logo, font, and bezel. 

Rolex also released updated versions of the Rolex Explorer II, the latest of which is the ref. 226570 released just this year in celebration of the line’s 50th anniversary. While the size, look, and functionality remain almost the same, what’s new is the Calibre 3285 automatic GMT movement that powers it. It also uses the latest Rolex lume, an optimized Chromalight display, a new bracelet, and a slightly thinner 42mm case. Meanwhile, earlier versions include the following: 

Reference 16550 

Introduced in 1985, the ref. 16550 is regarded as one of the transitional references—watches that include features of their predecessors but with more advanced features and modifications that serve as the blueprint for the succeeding references. It brought the larger 40mm case size, a dial that looks more similar to other sports watches, a sapphire crystal, and the Calibre 3085 movement. 

Reference 16570

In 1989, Rolex updated the Explorer II again in the form of the ref. 16570. It offered the same features as the ref. 16550 with a few significant upgrades such as the use of the new Caliber 3185 and white dials instead of the usual white gold ones. All the white dial versions of the Explorer II were later named the Polar Explorer, regardless of the specific reference. 

Reference 216570

Rolex marked the 40th anniversary of the Explorer II with the launch of the ref. 216570. While it’s a completely revamped version of the model, it pays homage to the inaugural ref. 16550 by featuring the familiar orange arrow-tipped 24-hour hand. But, what makes it different is that the 216570 is a dual-time watch with a second time zone display. It’s offered in either a black or white “Polar” dial. 

How Much Should You Spend on a Rolex Watch? 

“How much is a Rolex?” is a typical question among watch fans who are relatively new in the market. Given the brand’s name, history, and reputation for manufacturing high-quality watches that are built to last for years, you should expect to pay anywhere between $5,000 and $75,000 or more. Pricing will still vary on various factors including the material, movement, complications and demand for the particular watch you are eyeing to buy.

From the beginning, Rolex has created a perception of class, superiority, and success, and neither of them comes cheap. To answer the question, how much you should spend on a luxury watch such as the Rolex Explorer II boils down to your budget and your reason for buying one in the first place. Will it be for investment, style, or functionality? Fortunately, with a Rolex, any watch can fit these qualifications. This much is true for the Rolex Explorer II. So, check it out for yourself and invest your money in something that’s truly worth the splurge.